Rocking with the Nazis? Old songs dredge up bad memories in Germany

DUSSELDORF, Bettina Groenewald and Hannah Wagner (dpa)- A German politician wanted a simple conference about German culture and heritage. Instead, a folk singer's gift has Germans asking whether a focus on home affairs is too closely linked to the country's dark history.
If grandpa was a Nazi, are you allowed to like his music?

If you answered "No," then would it matter if that same music was actually popular with great-grandpa before the Nazis even showed up?
That's the question that has kept parts of Germany busy for days, ever since well-known crooner Heino presented a politician with an album including old German standards popularized by the SS during the Nazi era.
The trouble started on March 17, when Ina Scharrenbach, the home affairs minister of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, hosted a state gathering to discuss everything from historical landmarks to cultural heritage.
The Home Affairs Congress was already a treacherous endeavour, since, for some, the German-language word "Heimat" (Home) carries connotations that bring up memories of the Nazi era and Aryan superiority.
Then Heino - a fixture in Germany's folk music scene - showed up with his wife Hannelore and presented Scharrenbach with his out-of-print 80s-era double album, "Die schoensten deutschen Heimat- und Vaterlandlieder" ("The nicest German homeland and fatherland songs").
Germany went a little crazy.
The problem is that several of the songs on the album were put to heavy use in Nazi Germany. Modern listeners often have a hard time with songs like "Der Gott, der Eisen wachsen ließ" ("The God Who Let Iron Grow") which includes lyrics like "Today we want to, man for man, to turn the iron red with blood ... O sweet day of Revenge. That sounds good to every German."
"Why Heino?" asked the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) days after the event, as local media began questioning the songs and the presentation. Sven Wolf, parliamentary spokesman for the SPD asked why, given Heino's "history," the singer was even one of the 47 home affairs ambassadors invited to the event.
The 79-year-old is no stranger to controversy. In the 1980s, he was lambasted for playing in South Africa, despite international boycotts of the country's then apartheid system. Worse, some said, he performed his song "Schwarzbraun ist die Haselnuss" ("The Hazelnut is black and brown") in a country where the white minority disenfranchised the black majority.
He was also blasted for singing a Nazi-era anthem at a politician's request in 1977.
Despite this, the album presented at the gathering was not exactly a surprise: Heino - instantly recognizable after decades of performing with his bleached blonde hair and dark sunglasses - has long made a living from singing German standards.
He's a fixture of the Schlager popular music scene, though he has tried at times to modernize his image, most recently with an album of rock song covers in 2013.
However, the songs about beautiful German scenery and culture can sound treacly, embarrassing even, to younger Germans.
But this is not just about the music itself. In the background - as with so many matters in Europe's biggest economy - lies Germany's refugee policy under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Germans have had to come to terms with hundreds of thousands of refugees allowed into the country since a wave of arrivals in 2015, mostly from the Middle East. The rush of foreigners has prompted some violence and raised concerns that German culture could be overwhelmed.
The backlash has caused the Interior Ministry to include a new home affairs and "Heimat" department, which will look at matters of imbalances between different parts of Germany. It has also prompted states like Bavaria to demand their own border patrols and events like Scharrenbach's conference.
Heino himself is having none of it. He took to the pages of best-selling tabloid Bild to defend his song choices, noting that many of the songs predated the Nazi era by generations.
"If you look hard enough, you'll always find a song that has been misused," he told the newspaper. "The songs can't help it if they've been exploited."
Nor is the matter clear-cut. One of the songs on the contentious album - "Treuelied" ("Song of Loyalty") - was used by both the Nazis and the anti-Nazi opposition during the 1930s and 1940s.
Heino noted that he had historians on hand when he first cut the album and none of them had found his song choices controversial. The album came with a sticker proclaiming that teachers could use it in their lessons to help familiarize pupils with Germany's musical heritage.
Scharrenbach's office also pushed back against the criticism, noting that the minister had no chance to review what gifts she might be getting from the different ambassadors at the event.
"He was a registered guest and he was welcome," she told the Bonn-Anzeiger newspaper. "Heino has been making music for decades and is loved by many citizens." The Christian Democrat further pointed out that she had no connections to national socialist ideology.
State SPD officials said that wasn't good enough. They wanted to know why Scharrenbach posed, smiling, with a musician "with his history." Why was he even an ambassador, they asked.

Saturday, March 31st 2018
Bettina Groenewald and Hannah Wagner (dpa)

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